Years before “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) became a psychedelia-laced Gen X fetish object, British author Roald Dahl delighted readers with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And it was all about the candy.
Jawbreakers that last forever. Chewing gum that tastes like a three-course turkey dinner. Toffee that restores your hairline. In wedding the miracles of the Space Ageto the staid world of sweets, Dahl invited his readers to imagine a fantasy world where life largely orbited around the newest, most mind-blowingly delicious goodie. Willy Wonka didn't just make chocolate, he made
epic chocolate. The really primo stuff.
In his lively, riotously abnormal rendering of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” filmmaker Tim Burton (“Ed Wood”) gives sweets their mythical due. Wonka (Burton regular Johnny Depp) is no longer the sly, avuncular figure immortalized by Gene Wilder in the original movie, but an egotistical, somewhat fey man-child haunted by memories of a fanatical dentist father (Christopher Lee) who once martyred his son's Halloween candy in the family fireplace. Years later, Wonka has his revenge, building the world's most
formidable confectionery empire, albeit in solitude.
With his flat Midwestern accent (“It's my play-sure!”), high-pitched giggle, gauzy complexion and goofy pageboy haircut, Depp (“Edward Scissorhands”) cuts a mighty odd figure (think Natalie Portman in “The Professional” meets The Church Lady), but reports of his Jacko-ness have been highly exaggerated. Wonka isn't lecherous, just uniquely deranged: When he insists that whipped cream is made by whipping cows, he doesn't say it with a Wilderesque wink. He means it.
Enter Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore from “Finding Neverland”), a poor-as-can-be young lad who finds one of Wonka's vaunted golden tickets wedged in a chocolate bar, entitling him — along with four other children — to an unprecedented tour of the chocolate factory's magical inner workings.
Burton and screenwriter John August (“Big Fish”) have preserved Dahl's original vision of Charlie's spoiled rivals, with minor tuning. A-type champion gum chewer Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) is chaperoned by her freaky Bible Belt mother (“Galaxy Quest” actress Missi Pyle, hilarious).
Boob-tube addict Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry) now prefers carnage-soaked video games, and appears destined for Trenchcoat Mafia induction.
With kindly Grandpa Joe (David Kelly from “Waking Ned Devine”) in tow, Charlie soaks in the wonders of Wonka's neverland, including the Oompa Loompas, an army of indentured pygmies who burst into elaborate, Bollywood-meets-Esther Williams-style musical productions whenever one of the children meets an unkind (yet karma-appropriate) fate.
Played by pint-sized Indian actor Deep Roy, who was digitally Xeroxed for the role, Burton's Oompa Loompas aren't as eye-grabbing as the pear-shaped, orange-skinned breed in the Wilder movie, but they are more hilariously nimble, riding Violet's engorged, blueberry-plumped body like a team of miniature log rollers.
Fans of the original movie will undoubtedly find Burton's version somewhat cold and nonpaternal by comparison, but it's a funnier, more polished film, and like the new, goopy chocolate in Wonka's river, much richer.
Though singularly bizarre, Depp's Wonka is also close enough to the usual Burton antihero model that the filmmaker feels free to reference himself. Wonka wields a pair of scissors in one scene (mimicking his pale-skinned cousin in “Edward Scissorhands”) and oversees the shearing of a pink-wooled sheep in another (presumably to make an outfit for Ed Wood).
While Wilder played Wonka as a candy-making mensch who essentially has the children's best interests at heart, Depp plays him as a troubled soul with his own issues, and his own arc. And that's a good thing. He's not as nice a guy, but he's much more of a character.